Homework Behind Open-ended Questions ...


We know the story is always there.

Yet, bringing the story to the surface often requires the right questions. And no one is better at probing and cajoling a source than Terry Gross, the maestro of the NPR podcast “Fresh Air.”

She recently interviewed the actor Patricia Arquette. Having done her homework, Gross knows Arquette’s dad had converted to Islam, but listen to the answer in the following audio clip.

Terry Gross from NPR's Fresh Air and Patricia Arquette




Before asking the question, Gross didn’t know Arquette would end up sharing one of those “life is better than fiction” anecdotes. Still, it’s not luck. An American and father to a famous actor converting to Islam struck Gross as a springboard to something interesting; hence, the question.

Turning to the PR profession, a question like “What are the top benefits of the new content management system?” isn’t going to generate tension in the story. Instead, we need to do our homework and be willing to take our source to different places which in turn can open the door to storytelling fodder.

When I asked Bien Perez, a friend and journalist at the South China Morning Post, for his go-to techniques during an interview, he responded:

Research is key when it comes to interviewing a source. Reading through old news reports, interviews and feature articles, as well as watching relevant videos about the subject, his company or industry usually unearths a tidbit or two, or more, which could be used to start the conversation or move forward a discussion.”

Dan Tynan, who figures he’s conducted over 2,000 interviews as a journalist, delivered a training session in our San Jose office in June. He shared that even a simple Google search on the interviewee’s name can turn up useful pieces of information for the interview.

He made the point that if you dig in different places, you’re five times more likely to hit gold than digging in one place. The research serves as a pointer for new places to dig.

I think Terry would agree.


Note: For more on this topic, check out “Journalists Offer Tips on Interviewing, a Key to Storytelling.”

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